Mind your language.

For the last couple of months I’ve been involved in a writing project that required me to avoid using ableist language. I was under no obligation to do so; quite simply, if I wanted a certain group of people to hear me, I needed to avoid a certain type of language. It was a deal I struck of my own free will in exchange for their time and attention. I know a lot of people would baulk at that, but I can’t really see the problem. After all, nobody owes me their time.

Ableist language, to the best of my limited understanding and for the purpose of this exercise, basically consisted of:

  • Plainly offensive labels used to describe certain disabilities;e.g. spazwit, retard, cretin.
  • Using disabilities to describe other things entirely; e.g. describing an idea as crazy or stupid or lame. Which, if you think about it, is not really any better than describing anything subpar as “gay” or “Irish” or some suchlike stuff.

There’s a lot more than this to the subject, but the two points above met my immediate needs (and, I kid you not, it took me three re-reads to spot that I’d referred to the above as the “idiot’s guide”). In fact, it worked so well, resulting in such significant unintended positive consequences, that I’m pretty damn sold on the concept.

The first realisation was that none of this is new. Although it’s hailed as the triumph of the PC Police, it’s actually not that dissimilar from old-fashioned etiquette. I was cutting out the kind of language that would have gotten me a clip round the ear from my grandma. If anything has changed, is the fact that apparently, at some point in the last century, it became ok to call people names. Now we’re fighting for the right to do so without social consequences. I find that fascinating.

My second realisation was that my internal dialogue is appalling. That surprised me; I honestly thought I had a pretty good grip on that. I’ve put a lot of effort in the past to ensure that my self-talk was both accurate and constructive. Apparently it worked so well that I stopped doing it.

I talk to myself in a way that I would never, ever use towards another human being. Not even in my close social group; our etiquette includes giving each other merciless shit at every possible occasion, but it’s not done in order to run anyone down. When I talk to myself, though, I mean what I say, and what I say is mean.

Spotting that was easy enough when I removed the words “stupid” and “spastic” from my vocabulary. I was left with a surprising number of BLEEPS. Given that I’m not neurotypical, I found this both intriguing and repugnant. I would never consider insulting or belittling anyone for how their brain happens to be wired, yet I do precisely that in the privacy of my own skull several times a day. I’m still unsure as to whether that makes me a secret bigot, a hypocrite, or a bog-standard asshole.

The third realisation was that a lot of ableist language is actually very, very sloppy. When I call an idea “stupid” or “crazy”, I’m communicating next to nothing about what’s wrong with it. All I’m saying is that I disapprove of it, not why. Removing those labels from my vocabulary forced me to be infinitely more precise. I could, of course, substitute one vague label for another (“that’s a bad idea”), but noticing the sloppiness of my original communication actively encouraged me to be more specific (“the timeline for this project is unrealistic”). As I personally don’t believe that vague criticisms are terribly helpful, even when they’re not insulting, I was pretty impressed by that.

It was this last realisation that really clinched the deal for me. I hear a lot of noise about how the push against ableist language is restricting communications. If someone sucks, you should be able to tell them! Thing is, having tried it, it turns out that for me that’s not really the case.

Seems to me that if you have objections to someone or something and the only way in which you can voice them is by using slurs – if you can’t work out or articulate what your specific issues are – then you’re not really adding anything to that conversation. At most, you’re self-soothing by getting your objections off your chest. But when all you can do is throw non-specific labels around the place, I don’t think you can expect your objections to be taken all that seriously.

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2 thoughts on “Mind your language.

  1. Couldn’t you argue that “stupid” = “lacking in intelligence” rather than “intellectually disabled” in a clinical sense? Moron, imbecile and idiot used to be scientific classifications for developmental subnormality, along with retard(ation) — early 20th century they were scientific terms whose use as insults gradually rendered them problematic and then obsolete. You can argue that reaching for the label “stupid” too often is lazy, even pointlessly insulting. But is it ablist in itself?

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    • You could argue that. I’m not entirely sure what the point would be, though. I guess it depends on whether you’re more attached to your right to call people stupid or to resolving the actual issue.

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